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Author Toolbox Blog Hop: my first post!

Today is my first time participating in the Author Toolbox Blog Hop! The hop takes place the third Wednesday of every month (minus November/December) and focuses on the sharing of resources and learning tools for authors.

Stop by the hop page and check out all the participants and their posts this month! Also check out #AuthorToolboxBlogHop on Twitter.

Since this is my first time on the hop, and I’m just starting, today I’m going to talk about the hardest part of writing a novel: the beginning.

How To Start A Novel

A lot of writers, some much wiser than me, have joked that once you write the beginning of a book, the rest is easy. Of course, if you’ve ever written a book you know that’s a bit of an exaggeration–it’s never easy–but it’s true that you can’t finish a book unless you start it. Sometimes starting can be so daunting, or complicated, or confusing, that it discourages you before you even begin. Where do you start? What’s the best place? What will not only hook the reader but get the story chugging along right out of the gate? And what if you screw up and start in the wrong place?

I once read an editor say that you should write your first chapter and then get rid of the first three pages and start there instead. This may work sometimes, but it’s also particular to the story and it’s assuming that you used too much useless filler at the beginning, which you might not have done. Let’s look at some of the more practical ways you can decide how, and where, to start.

  • Start with action. This doesn’t necessarily mean a gun fight, or a car chase, or a burning building. Especially if you’re not writing a book that would have any of those things. Start with something going on, something dynamic and interesting, but most importantly, something that’s significant to the story. Lead off with an event that’s going to make the reader sit up and go “whoa, what’s happening here?” But again, it needs to be important, and appropriate to the story. Starting with overblown action that’s merely a hook and doesn’t connect to the rest of the story is fake, it’s bad writing, and it won’t get you far. The “action” can be as simple as an argument around the dinner table or as jarring as someone dumping a body in a lake.
  • Start with something at stake. It’s important right away that the reader is shown why they should care. What’s going on here, and what’s going to happen if our characters fail? Show right away what hangs in the balance, what needs fixing, and how everything is a big hot mess right now and needs to be sorted out. The sooner you let the reader know what they’re supposed to be cheering for, the better. This creates an emotional theme that you will weave through the rest of the story.
  • Start with a conflict-in-progress. Don’t start a story days before something important happens, just so you can build a character and make everything look idyllic before it all hits the fan. This can seem like a way to create tension and make people wonder what’s coming, but it can drag and meander really badly, too. Most readers don’t want a story to start slowly like this because it’s difficult for the writer to keep it interesting. Best to jump in with both feet, right away. In this case “throw out the first three pages” is good advice.
  • Let your characters be people. It’s okay for your characters to have quirks, interests, dislikes, and habits–that’s what makes them seem real. And it’s good to let some of these things show right away, so your reader can relate to them and they feel like people. Once you’ve set up your starting action, ask yourself how your characters would react in that situation based on their personalities, and let it shine through. Make sure you don’t start your characters out as nothing more than cardboard cutouts. Give them life, and color.
  • Introduce you main characters. This seems obvious, but some amateur writers still do it–not introducing your main characters, or at least the main character, right away, or letting them stay a mystery for a few chapters as some sort of artistic choice. This is very rarely going to work out for you. Imagine going to see a movie and ten minutes in the real characters show up, after you’ve already seen the start of someone else’s story. You’re going to be confused, to say the least. If you want your main character to “make an entrance,” you can do that on the first page.

On the other hand, there are some things you should probably steer clear of at the beginning of a novel. I’m not saying you can’t do these things, if they’re done artfully, but as a general rule they’re going to make an agent or editor stop reading after page one.

DON’T:

  • World build right away. Especially in genres like sci-fi and fantasy, you might have created an entire world that the readers need to learn about. Don’t do this at the beginning, though. Give readers the minimum they need to know to understand what’s happening right now and spoon-feed the rest of your world to them over the course of the book. A good rule is: write a book as if the reader already knows everything about your world. You can tell them as you go, in the appropriate spots. If you do a huge info-dump on page one, you’re not telling a story, you’re writing a textbook.
  • Have a lot of internal reflection. Don’t have a character thinking about how sad/angry/happy they are on the first page. Show them crying, punching the wall, or dancing around their living room singing. Navel gazing is boring, especially if it’s someone we don’t even know and identify with yet.
  • Go overboard with physical descriptions. A passing reference to your character’s appearance is really all that’s needed at the beginning, if it’s needed at all. Readers are probably going to picture how they look anyway. There are some genres where appearance is more important and actually part of the narrative–like romance–but spending too much time describing a character from head to toe takes away from the story, especially at the all-important start.
  • Start with too many characters. If your book has an ensemble cast, having them all show up on page one is going to be really, really confusing for your reader. Try to focus on one or a much smaller group to start with. And make it abundantly clear from the first paragraph which one is the main character. Readers need to know very fast: who the story is about, what they’re up against, how things will fall apart if they don’t succeed, and why they (the reader) should care.
  • There is also a list of things many writers will tell you not to start with: dreams, flashbacks, the weather, prologues, exposition, clichés, people waking up, sounds (BANG BANG BANG)…the list goes on, depending on who you ask. However, I maintain there are ALWAYS exceptions to every rule, and not using (or using) these devices is dependent on the story itself.

So, that’s how you start a novel! Easy, right?! Now writing the rest should be even easier. Or, it could be the hardest thing you ever do. The important part is that you start at all, of course. And you can always go back and fix it, once you know the full story yourself.

Stop by the other blogs on the hop!

Megan Morgan View All

Paranormal and contemporary romance author.

58 thoughts on “Author Toolbox Blog Hop: my first post! Leave a comment

  1. I always enjoy a good catalogue of possibilities. Even if they’re not the right answer for a given story, they always get my mind going.

    I definitely think you’re right about not going too far in any one direction in the beginning.
    I think that’s part of why the “mini story” or “prologue adventure” works so well, a nice quick sample of how the story as a whole will be.

    Like

      • Couldn’t agree more. One of my best writing instructors once told me, “The key is to understand the rules, so that you only break them intentionally, with a purpose in mind. That way, audiences know to question the choice to break the rules, and look for the hidden meaning. Few things are worse than audiences trying to understand ‘why’, only to realize the author simply made a mistake.”

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great points here, Megan. Thanks so much for sharing them with your fellow writer. The best thing about our Author Toolbox community is learning from each other. Welcome! I wish you every success in 2018.

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  3. Welcome to the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop, Megan. Great first post on beginnings. I agree with Iola. “A good rule is: write a book as if the reader already knows everything about your world.” is great advice. Thanks for breaking it down and making it easy… well easier.

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  4. Welcome to the blog hop, Megan!

    What a great first post. I especially liked this line:

    “A good rule is: write a book as if the reader already knows everything about your world.”

    I’m going to remember that, for myself and for my writer friends. Thanks for joining us, and keep up the great work!

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  5. “How do I start a novel?” is the number 1 question of those who want to write a book. A close second is “Where do I find the time?” You’ve given some valuable information to those who want to take the plunge. Thanks!

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  6. All good advice. I always like to say, there should be a question the reader is asking from the very first sentence. I’m a fan of more subtle openings, although a big bang is pretty awesome too–as long as it doesn’t detract from the flow of the building tension.

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  7. Welcome to the blog hop! Some great advice here. Starting a novel is always the most difficult part for me – I rewrite my first chapter at least five times before continuing the rest. Thanks for sharing!

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  8. I always like to get to an action or something exciting right away in my stories. The world-building one is tough. When you’re actually writing a fantasy story, it’s difficult to know if you shared just enough or too much in the beginning. I’m having that problem now…or I think I am…with an urban fantasy. I cut out a lot and used action to reveal a bit about the world in the beginning, but I still worry I’m not doing it right. lol

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    • I feel your pain. I too write urban fantasy, and it’s always a delicate balance of trying to give enough information to make sense and not dumping a whole textbook on reader’s heads. But hey, the challenge is why we became writers, right? We like to overcome, right?! 😀

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Like

  9. Welcome to the #authortoolboxbloghop! I have a habit of starting with dialogue in my first drafts, but this usually gets replaced with some sort of physical action or description, as I write in fantasy worlds very different from our own.

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  10. I’ve made many of those – ‘Don’t do…’ mistakes. Now, I tend to write the whole story then delete the first and last several paragraphs. It’s usually much better. They’re often warming up and cooling down word vomits. 🙂

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  11. I very much agree with all of the DON’Ts on this list. Most openings I see suffer from one or several of those issues, most notably internal reflection. The DOs are also great guidelines, but I would argue that it’s not always great to start in the middle of a “big hot mess.” The Hero’s Journey begins with the status quo which is then interrupted; opening right in the middle of things can get confusing if not done well, and it’s especially tough to do well in speculative fiction where worldbuilding can also confuse at the open. I usually recommend my clients either give their inciting incident by the end of chapter one, or at least hook us until we can get to it in chapter two. The rest of the guidelines should keep us hooked until the incident happens 🙂

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  12. Hi Megan! I actually did write my first chapter and then cut a bunch off the beginning, but it’s only because during the process, I organically happened upon a killer first line, so I decided to start there instead. I haven’t done this with prior books though. I’ve actually started chapters earlier in prior books, so yeah, definitely a play-it-by-ear as opposed to hard-and-fast rule. 🙂 Great post! I’ll plug this on Facebook in a couple of weeks. 🙂

    Like

    • That’s the great thing about editing, isn’t it? Nothing is set in stone–we can always go back and fix it up after we figure out more about the story.

      Thank you! And thanks for stopping by!

      Like

  13. Some great advice 🙂
    In my first ever draft I had far too much internal reflection and too many characters. I know better now, but I’m still struggling with where to start the first chapter of that work in progress. (my other work in progress seems so much easier!) This will be a great checklist for me to refer to when I go back to it. Thanks for sharing 🙂

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  14. Welcome to the blog hop. Great opening post! I’m sure you will find some wonderful people here to exchange knowledge and ideas with. I know, I have.

    For me, the beginning is the easiest and most exciting part. It starts like a tingle and grows into an itch, and before I know it, I’m in the middle of a frenzy of words. The more difficult part for me is keeping the momentum going as I try to ensure my characters’ and story’s arcs are in sync, and that there aren’t any plot holes or irrelevant expositions, etc. Conceptualizing and writing scenes is as fun as the “rest”, where the craft is concerned, is hard work.

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    • Thank you!

      I’ve definitely been there. If only you could hold on to the excitement that starting gives you through the rest of the scenes! Eventually the momentum slows down and you have to start doing the hard work. There’s still bright spots here and there though–and that keeps me going.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Excellent post Megan and welcome! I love the do item of starting with the conflict. I love the don’t item to not introduce too many characters. I am reading one right now with so many names for different characters and way too many characters with crazy names early on. 🙂

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  16. Welcome to the blog hop. I critique lots of opening pages and the number 1 problem I see is “no conflict.” No conflict=no story. As a reader I will forgive almost every other first chapter sin if there is an interesting conflict.
    Great post! Looking forward to seeing more from you!

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  17. Welcome to the hop! Thanks for sharing this great post on how to start a novel. I definitely struggle with starting with something at stake. I don’t think it’s quite a matter of starting later in the action, just making the driving conflict more apparent in the first few pages. But I’ll be keeping this post in mind as I revise my beginnings. Thanks again!

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